Jo Walton, The Just City (Tor, 2015)
Nobody can take an idea and run with it like Jo Walton. This is the writer who gave us a Trollopean social satire populated by dragons (Tooth and Claw), a country house murder mystery that turns into a chilling alternate history of a Fascist England (Farthing), and a coming-of-age story built around lots of science fiction book recommendations. With fairies. And Wales (Among Others).
Now, in The Just City, we have what sounds like the winner of a “wackiest premise for a novel” contest: a group of time-traveling philosophers from throughout history, led by a couple of Olympian gods, set out to turn Plato’s Republic from theory into fact. Because this is Jo Walton, she has us hooked from the first chapter. This nonchalantly introduces us to Apollo, fresh from a disastrous encounter with the nymph Daphne. He goes for advice to his wise sister Athene, who keeps getting prayed to by people from all kinds of times and places to please help them create the Republic on earth, and needs to find something to do with them. It just gets better — and stranger — from there.
Apollo is one of the narrators of the story, in alternating chapters with Maia, one of the Masters whose prayers to Athene have entitled her to build and organize the city, and Simmea, one of the “children” who are rescued from lives of slavery to grow up under the Platonic system and aim at the philosopher’s ultimate goal of pursuing excellence. (In an effort to learn some important things that he can’t understand as a powerful god, Apollo has elected to be born as a mortal and grow up as one of the children as well.) So from three different levels of consciousness we see how the experiment is working out, and where some of the difficulties lie, especially after Sokrates himself comes to the city with his troubling questions.
The details of making the Republic a reality are largely the fun of the book. Thriving on a regime of exercise, art, and study, Simmea grows to love the city and embrace its ideals, while in a society based on equality of the sexes Maia finds a welcome release from the limitations of her previous Victorian existence. Appearances by real historical personalities are entertaining, as is the idea of rescuing some of the greatest lost literature and art — Botticelli’s Winter, anyone? But some of the more bizarre notions on which the city is founded cause it to start to crumble as the years go by, and serious questions about the nature of the soul, individuality, and self-determination arise.
The fact that the Just City has problems is not a reflection on the achievement of Plato in The Republic; the masters themselves acknowledge that the dialogue was meant as a thought experiment and not as a practical blueprint. Taking the experiment a step further through fiction, though, causes the thoughts to be reactivated and reassembled in a new form, and that’s not a bad thing. It definitely made me want to read Plato for the first time since I was forced to do so in school. I was less interested in the debate about artificial intelligence that comes to dominate the latter part of the book. I am willing to suspend disbelief for a lot of things, but the idea that robots can become sentient just from being around a critical mass of philosophers is not one of them.
This and a few other aspects caused me not to love this book as much as I could have (including several disturbing rape scenes). Still, I found The Just City to be a diverting, thought-provoking, mind-bending ride of a novel, philosophy degree not required. Thanks once again to Jo Walton for writing a book like nothing anybody else would ever dream of, and making it seem the most natural thing in the world. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, which is fortunately coming out in only a few months.